Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Memoriam: Barbara Kent, 1907-2011


"The golden era was the period from 1916 to 1928. It is a neglected period, forgotten often by the very men who enriched it. They have seen their films reissued on television; bad prints shown at the wrong speed have distorted their memory. Perhaps the ballyhoo meant nothing. Perhaps their much-praised pictures were as jerky and as primitive as they appear today.

They were not."
--From the introduction to The Parade's Gone By, by Kevin Brownlow


"I've always said that the pantomime is far more poetic and it has a universal appeal that everyone would understand if it were well done. The spoken word reduces everybody to a certain glibness. The voice is a beautiful thing, most revealing, and I didn't want to be too revealing in my art because it may show a limitation. There are very few people with voices that can reach or give the illusion of great depth, whereas movement is as near to nature as a bird flying. The expression of the eyes--there's no words. The pure expression of the face that people can't hide--if it's one of disappointment it can be ever so subtle. I had to bear all this in mind when I started talking. I knew very well I lost a lot of eloquence. It can never be as good."
--Charlie Chaplin, from the so-called Lost Interview with Richard Meryman, at ednapurviance.org

*****


The Siren has seen only two pictures starring Barbara Kent, who has died at the age of 103. One is the 1933 shoestring Oliver Twist, with Kent as Rose. The other is Flesh and the Devil, in which Kent had the unenviable task of being the forsaken lover to Garbo's lascivious temptress. Still, it's the silent Flesh and the Devil that left a far stronger impression. Sound seemed to diminish this diminutive actress, as it did so many others. In pantomime, her tiny body made her even sweeter and more fragile, and it added poignance to her hurt over John Gilbert's betrayal.

Kent managed to continue her career into the talkie era, but never caught on as a big star, despite marrying her agent in 1934. She got out of the business in 1941. Read enough about Hollywood--or even a little--and you realize Barbara Kent's fate is no sad ending. She got, in fact, about the best you could hope for, short of a star's immortality. She lived a long, long life and, we hope, a good one.

Still, Kent's passing, which leaves Mickey Rooney as one of the only living actors who ever played in a silent, made the Siren well up, though the Siren knows some would tell her it's absurd to cry over the death of a woman you never met, whom you've seen only in two movies.



The Siren always knew she would most likely live to see every silent-film artist depart the planet before she did. But the Siren still wishes she'd gotten the chance to tell Kent, or any of the other artists that Kevin Brownlow has spent a lifetime celebrating, that she's sorry about all the years when so few people were even trying to preserve their legacy. Probably that wouldn't have meant much to Kent, anyway, since she spent most of her life refusing all interviews of any sort; the Times said Kent was sometimes known to deny that she ever had a film career at all. Who knows how she looked back on Hollywood, let alone the silents. Did she see a lost golden age, or just a quaint, irrelevant relic of a former lifetime? The Siren looks at images of the late Barbara Kent, and thinks only that we need to do better.

22 comments:

Dan Callahan said...

Kent is wonderful in Paul Fejos's movie "Lonesome," and she's the lead.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iNDzHLzsHQc

This is the silent version. There was a version released with two talking scenes, and it completely ruins the film. So there is something to be said for silence, especially late '20s silence.

Rachel said...

At least Frederica Sagor Maas is still alive (at 111!). She wrote the screenplay for Flesh and the Devil. I'm going to indulge in the happy little fantasy that at one point she and Barbara Kent contacted each other to reminisce.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely piece.

"Still, Kent's passing...made the Siren well up, though the Siren knows some would tell her it's absurd to cry over the death of a woman you never met, whom you've seen only in two movies."

Your blog is cathartic for classic film buffs precisely for what we have secretly in common but could never share with others who would not understand.

Operator_99 said...

I had a short bit of info on her in my Wyler blogathon post and it included the following from the 1930 edition of Photoplay annual.

"A real young veteran of pictures is Barbara Kent. She was born in Gadsby, Alberta, Canada, December 16, 1909, and entered pictures in 1925 for Universal. After some years of service in Western pictures and comedies, Barbara came to much recognition as Harold Lloyd's leading woman in his first talkie, "Welcome Danger." Barbara, whose real surname is Cloutman, is 4 feet, 11 inches tall and weighs 103 pounds Her hair is auburn and her eyes are blue. She was a Wampas Star of the 1927 crop."

Interesting that she was called a veteran as early as 1930. If only they knew how long she would be with us. R.I.P. Barbara.

Laura said...

I loved her character in Flesh and the Devil. I'm glad she lived a long life, but it still tears me up knowing we're losing all the greats from the silent era, particularly since the genre is long dead itself, outside of blogs and fanatics like us who still treasure them.

Ned said...

Although I have not seen either of the films the Siren mentions, I can appreciate her angst at the loss of not just an actress but of the finality of such a loss.

The era in which Barbara Kent worked has long since ended but anyone who has spent any time in the dream world of silent film can appreciate the pangs of distress given out by film critics and fans at the coming of sound. Just as film, as an art form, was maturing, taking flight, it crashed to earth under the weight of the microphone.

Of course it rose again (or few of us would be so fanatical about it). Still, silents offered such a distinctly different film experience, it's really almost a separate art form. The stilted acting can be seen today as slightly comical but we also had miraculous moments--Louise Brooks in Pandora, Emil Jannings in Der Letzte Mann, Chaplin in City Lights, and Keaton in, well, anything.

And unlike many other periods or eras, silent films disappeared nearly overnight. Months before the Jazz Singer premiered it was already gone. The day after, it was over.

So the passing of one of the last to work in that era is an event of some moment. Like the passing of the last soldier from WWI, it makes a difference, as you say, a big difference, even though we never met Barbara Kent. It's the loss of someone--one of the few remaining--who was actually there. And it matters.

Thanks for this reminder.

VP81955 said...

All of "Hollywood" -- an invaluable resource for anyone who wishes to learn about silent cinema -- is now available via YouTube (although for some inexplicable reason YouTube won't allow episode #10, "The Man With The Megaphone," to be put up directly; however, there are links to access it). You can learn more about this through my entry today at "Carole & Co.", http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/452990.html

Moreover, the Media History Digital Library, http://mediahistoryproject.org, is gradually assembling a wonderful online collection of trade publications (including Film Daily and Moving Picture World), fan magazines (notably Photoplay) and more. Any classic film buff worth his or her salt will come back to this splendid resource over and over again.

Vanwall said...

When I first started watching silents and early sound films, the actors were the focus of interest, later the directors. One day I watched "Sunset Boulevard" for the first time, and although I recognized many of the names and actors, one stuck out - a pug-faced beefy lookin' guy that played Jonesy, the Paramount gate guard that recognizes Norma and lets her in. I remembered that face and voice from another film, but I couldn't remember where, and he wasn't in the credits so I'd be able to look him up somewhere. A few years later, and there he was again, the place I remembered him from: Paddy Ryan from "Public Enemy". He turned out to be Robert O'Connor, one of that great sea of faces the Studios had at their disposal. I started watching for him, and sure enough he was all over the place, from silents to pre-codes to late 40's and early 50's films, usually as a cop of some sort. Skidillions of guys and gals like him were the glue that held the movies together, regardless of stars. It was a grinding-down business, though, and actors and actresses like Barbara Kent, who decided to step out of the limelight, may have been the lucky ones. I'm glad she lived a long life, and it's nice to see her work wasn't forgotten - Norma Desmond said it right,"We had faces!" - that's what everyone remembers, the on-camera players, but there were so many that made up the movies, the supporting actors, the bit players, the stand-ins, the stunt men, the writers, prop men, grips, electricians, construction crews, and all the other craft people, it's sad that so many have passed on and will pass on without a word in the NYT.

Yojimboen said...

The passing of Barbara Kent reminds me of an exchange we had a couple of years back [post 2008/2009 Oscar broadcast] re the (IMO) outrageous insult of omitting Anita Page from the obituary montage. She almost made it to 100 (died at 98) but didn’t quite make the Academy’s obit reel.

From her IMDb bio: “Beautiful Anita Page was one of the most famous and popular leading ladies during the last years of the silent screen and the first years of the talkie era. She was best known for starring in The Broadway Melody (1929), the first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Her leading men included the likes of John Gilbert, Clark Gable, Buster Keaton and Robert Montgomery…”

I attach my two favorite images as tribute.

The first speaks to her remarkable beauty; the second (reportedly her own idea and design), to her sense of humor.

No prize for guessing which one is my current screen saver.

Karen said...

That Chaplin quote is a poem. Just lovely. As was Kent.

It IS easy for those unfamiliar with the medium to dismiss silents as herky-jerk slapstick as seen in Keystone Kops klips used in car commercials, or as the over-the-top gesticulation seen in some Perils of Pauline type quickie (or in most of Norma Shearer's talkies; yeah, I said it).

But the twin blessings of TCM and Netflix instruct those willing to learn that there was subtle and beautiful acting, inventive direction, and breathtaking cinematography in that era (in fact, it would take a while until sound technology would release the camera from its stage-bound captivity). The acting WAS different from what followed with sound, and it is sometimes shocking to see how primitive early talkies appear when compared to the artworks they supplanted.

It's tempting to agree with the vamp in "Singin' in the Rain," and write off talkies as vulgar, elevating silents to a higher sphere. Happily, talking pictures managed to evolve into their own form of art. But it is entrancing to see the first version of cinematic art.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Joseph Cornell so loved silent film that he turned a talkie East of Borneo into a silent short the better to celebrate it's star Rose Hobart.

In his writings Cornell spoke of certain actresses posesasing a je ne sais quoi that for him kept the aura of the silent cinema alive. Among them: Hedy Lamarr and Jacqueline Bissett.

I'd put Barbara Stelle in there too.

DavidEhrenstein said...

a fortiori

Unknown said...

OMG! Anita Page! I've had that second shot of her as a picture postcard forever and only knew her as "the (anonymous) cutie with the scimitar". I always thought it was a repro of a French Postcard (if you know what I mean & I think you do). Thanks for the info, Yojimboen. So - what was that shot for? A specific film? Or a particularly outre publicity shot for Miss Page herself?

surly hack said...

Siren, thank you for remembering.

Tonio Kruger said...

I only know of the late Ms. Kent from her part in the old 1927 Oliver Hardy Western No Man's Law. But that was enough for me.

She will be missed.

Yojimboen said...

@Unknown - Photo of “Scimitar Lady” by Clarence Sinclair Bull (date ca 1932) is one of hundreds in similar series of MGM stars, starlets and contract players which have surfaced over the years. Who commissioned them from the Bull Studio is anyone’s guess.

Bull was less prolific than Alfred Cheney Johnston, but to my eye much more creative; his series of Carole Lombard for example captures Lombard’s challenging sexuality while Johnston’s session with Norma Shearer (done pre her marriage to Thalberg) have an “I was young, I needed the money!” look to them.

Bull’s portrait of Barbara Kent is quite lovely.

(End of Off-Topic).

Karen said...

Y, your discussion of your photo collection is NEVER off-topic.

Where are these Lombard photos you speak of??

Yojimboen said...

Okay, just for Karen.
(No one else is allowed to click on them, okay?)

Carole Lombard by William E. Thomas
(ca 1929)

# 1 and # 2

Noel Vera said...

I wish there was a subtitled DVD of O'Hara's Bubungang Lata to show y'all; it speaks of this kind of nostalgia, not necessarily of the silents, but of films of old.

Which in the Philippines, sadly, can be as recent as the '70s and '80s.

Karen said...

Bless you, Y.--and WOW. That headdress!

Without her hair visible, and with the 1920s styling, it's a real challenge to recognize her as Lombard, isn't it?

Yojimboen said...

Back on topic:
The Guardian has a touching obituary of Ms Kent.

Yojimboen said...

Some elusive stuff, here:

1. A montage tribute to the lovely Barbara Kent.

2. An excerpt from No Man’s Law (Oliver Hardy as the villain, bested by Rex, the Wonder Horse) which features Ms Kent’s extended skinny-dip scene. Her apparent nudity caused something of a scandal in 1927 – the studio (Hal Roach) press agent quickly put out the story that Ms Kent was wearing “…a body-suit to protect her modesty”.

Strange, and I’m not complainin’, I’m just sayin’ that, strange, in some shots it looks like the ‘body-suit’ had tan-lines.